These pigeons are leading the fight against London’s air pollution

The city of London has a broadly hate-hate relationship with pigeons. Six years ago, it was revealed that the city was paying £60,000 per year on hawks to scare the birds away from Trafalgar Square, at a cost of £2,790 per dead bird. Six years on, and the bird so often dismissed as “feathered vermin” is getting a much-needed PR boost by measuring London’s notoriously high air-pollution levels.

Ten birds have been fitted with lightweight backpacks, designed to measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and volatile compounds. It’s the work of the appropriately named Plume Labs – an idea that came from digital marketing agency DigitasLBi, entering Twitter’s #PoweredbyTweets contest.

You can follow the pigeon’s process on a live map, and request information on your part of London by tweeting @PigeonAir with your region. So far the birds have refused to visit me down in Zone 3, though, despite not needing to rely on public transport.

Pigeons, despite their bad rap, are perfect for the job. They fly fast and low: 100-150ft at speeds of up to 80mph. The primary aim of this isn’t to give a comprehensive view of the entire city, though: more to raise awareness of a problem that Londoners silently put up with.

It is a scandal. It is a health and environmental scandal for humans – and pigeons. We’re making the invisible visible,” said DigitasLBi’s Pierre Duquesnoy, who came up with the idea in the first place, to The Guardian. “Most of the time when we talk about pollution, people think about Beijing or other places, but there are some days in the year when pollution was higher and more toxic in London than Beijing –that’s the reality.”

Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time animals have been used to measure air pollution. Back in 2001, 152 stray dogs were studied in Mexico to see the effects of urban air pollution on the healthy dogs’ lungs. Fifteen years on, however, technology is able to do much of the heavy lifting.

It’s an important issue to raise. A study last year revealed that air pollution is due to kill 6.6 million people by 2050, so anything to give the issue more exposure is extremely welcome. Well done pigeons.

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